The Detroit City Council meets for a Sept. 19, 2023, meeting in the Erma Henderson Auditorium. (Image provided by the City of Detroit)

Several residents and block club leaders voiced support Monday for a $5 million expansion of traffic cameras based on a false hope that it would address speeding in neighborhoods.

A researcher and attorney invited by the City Council to a public hearing on the plan said the public’s confusion reveals flaws with an ordinance meant to create accountability for Detroit’s growing use of surveillance technology. Rae Baker, a community and action research professor at the University of Cincinnati who lives in Detroit, said the city is also making it difficult to obtain data on how license plate readers are used – she said the Detroit Law Department estimated it would cost $47,000 to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request she filed on behalf of a research coalition.

“The ordinance that is supposed to ensure Detroiters, as well as City Council members, have information they need to make informed decisions about surveillance technology is not working very well,” Baker said during a Monday meeting of the council’s Public Health and Safety committee. “What the public comment demonstrated today is that Detroiters are not adequately informed about the use of this technology.”

The City Council on Tuesday could approve a $5 million contract with Motorola Solutions, Inc. funded with federal pandemic relief. The contract would double the number of cameras posted at intersections to automatically capture photos of passing vehicles. The cameras collect data on license plate number, make, model, color and speed of cars in daylight and at night. 

Council President Mary Sheffield led the surveillance oversight ordinance’s passage in 2021 as part of her “People’s Bills” policy agenda. Sheffield said earlier this month that she plans to introduce changes aimed at strengthening disclosure requirements for surveillance contracts.

Meanwhile, Baker and ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney Ramis Wadood warned that license plate readers could lead to unnecessary traffic stops and DPD must ensure databases for the cameras can’t be used by federal immigration officials. License plate cameras have been active in Detroit since 2018 through contracts with Flock and Genetec.

Detroit Police Department policy states information collected by the cameras can’t be used or shared with other agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. It also prohibits DPD from using the cameras to take images of individuals, enforce traffic laws or track people after they leave their car. Data is retained for 90 days.

Deputy Chief Franklin Hayes said the cameras are instrumental in investigations of stolen vehicles and violent crimes. Hayes said the technology was used in 75 instances this year, but he provided no data on how many crimes were solved by the cameras.

Hayes said the cameras are used to identify vehicles flagged in the department’s database as stolen or connected to a violent crime, including homicides, carjackings, shootings and robberies. It’s also used to find cars to find missing children and kidnapping victims, Hayes said. 

“We have a track record of using this responsibly and solving crimes,” Hayes said. 

DPD recorded an 11 percent increase in vehicle thefts compared to last year, as of Sept. 19. That includes 6,970 incidents, an increase of 709 vehicle thefts compared to what DPD reported by September 2022. 

Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero said DPD was unable to produce data she requested about the effectiveness of license plate readers, which would help her colleagues determine whether the pending contract is a good use of pandemic funding. Hayes said the department is working on ways to keep track of how the cameras are being used. 

“This is so expensive, and I want to make sure that it is being effective, but we don’t even see those numbers,” Santiago-Romero said.

Santiago-Romero, who represents District 6 on the city’s southwest side, was the only council member on the Public Health and Safety committee who voted against recommending the Motorola contract for approval. Council Members Scott Benson and Mary Waters voted in support. 

Betty Varner, president of the De Soto Ellsworth Block Club Association, said the cameras have potential to reduce crime and track stolen vehicles but “should not be used to invade anyone’s privacy.” 

Baker said national research has shown license plate readers have had no statistical impact on the retrieval of stolen vehicles. She pointed to a study of license plate readers in North Carolina by George Mason University that found case clearances for auto theft and robbery improved after cameras were installed, but the increases were minor and could have been caused by other factors. Baker is concerned that the technology could lead to unnecessary traffic stops that disproportionately impact Black Detroiters. 

Hayes challenged Baker and Wadood to provide data showing the technology has been misused or is ineffective. Hayes argued they provided “unsubstantiated conjecture” to the council. But Baker and Wadood said DPD has stood in the way of providing more data on how license plate readers are used in Detroit. 

“Having not been able to provide data specifically from Detroit today is entirely the result of me not having $47,000 to purchase data on behalf of a research coalition I’m part of,” Baker said. “If data can be made publicly available or free for the purpose of research … I would be happy to have the data.” 

BridgeDetroit filed a similar Freedom of Information Act request in June seeking all data collected from license plate readers over a two-month period. The Detroit Law Department said it would cost $23,042 to release the data, citing significant resources to redact records that include a photo of the vehicle and license plate, location of the camera, what time the photo was taken and other details on the vehicle’s speed, make, model and color.

The Community Input Over Government Surveillance ordinance was passed in 2021 to require city departments to release a public report on the use of surveillance technology and address potential civil rights concerns. Attorneys with the ACLU of Michigan say city departments haven’t adequately addressed civil rights concerns in those reports. 

ACLU attorneys argue the oversight ordinance is flawed because it allows departments seeking surveillance technology to determine whether there are civil rights concerns. The ACLU is seeking an amendment that requires an independent review of surveillance oversight reports to prevent conflicts of interest. 

A report created by DPD earlier this year states license plate reader technology “does not intrude upon any constitutionally protected areas” and misuse of the technology and information collected by cameras “is strictly prohibited.” The DPD report also states city departments must provide details on what governmental agencies request license plate data from Detroit. 

“After careful consideration, DPD cannot determine any instance or situation where legally protected information may be collected,” the report states. 

Wadood said 31 other police agencies have access to DPD data, and those agencies may not have restrictions on sharing information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“Even if a DPD member doesn’t answer a call from ICE, another agency could,” Wadood said. 

Sean Rositano, a policy analyst with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and a member of the council’s Immigration Task Force, said DPD policies don’t provide the protections needed to ensure immigrants aren’t harmed.

“Cities nationwide have flocked to limit use of license plate readers because researchers have shown ICE and Border Patrol regularly access Motorola’s license plate databases,” Rositano said. “Nearby, Hamtramck and Ypsilanti have both voted ‘no’ on automatic license plate reader proposals.”

License plate readers are provided to Detroit through contracts with Flock and Genetec. The latest proposed contract is with Motorola Solutions, which has shifted its business from mobile communications to surveillance in the last decade. Once known for cellphones, the Chicago-based company invested millions to acquire companies that provide an array of surveillance tools. 

A 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found license plate cameras are used by two-thirds of large police agencies across the country – tripling in the previous decade. 

Metro Detroit law enforcement agencies have adopted the technology, according to The Detroit News, including Warren, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Southfield, Ecorse, Lincoln Park, Troy, Sterling Heights, Chesterfield Township, Van Buren Township, Grosse Ile, Grosse Pointe Park, Metro Airport Police, Michigan State Police and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

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